Excerpt from "Conjuring Dreams" - Back Seat Driver

>> Sunday, March 22, 2015

Someone was talking about the technology, becoming available now, of self-driving cars. The concept reminded me of a short story I wrote some years back on the topic and published as part of my "Conjuring Dreams: Learning to Write by Writing" book (available for free from smashwords and several other retailers - see sidebar)

Back Seat Driver

    The lights have been left on.
    Stephen growled at the car and slammed the door shut with unwarranted violence. Through the door, he could still faintly hear the pleasant voice of the car's computer:
    As you have elected not to turn off the lights yourself, the lights will be turned off automatically. Thank you for driving a Xiver automobile. Have a nice day.
    Stephen was not having a nice day, however. He thrust his employee badge, emblazoned with the Xiver logo, into his pocket and crunched down the gravel walk to the house. As he stepped on the porch, a red light above another Xiver logo came on and Stephen heard a similar pleasant voice to the one in his car.
    Please state your business, sir or madam.
    "Mr. Bennet is home," Stephen said impatiently and squished his thumb into the ID plate. He moved through the door almost before it had a chance to slide out of the way.
    Welcome home.
    "Shut up," he told the door, dropping his coat on the hallway table and shoving his briefcase beneath it. "Rachel!"
    "In the kitchen, dear," called a voice every bit as pleasant as the automated ones that irritated Stephen so much.
    Almost against his will, Stephen's face lightened. Loosening his tie, Stephen strode down the utilitarian hallway to a dark kitchen every bit as practical. "Rachel," he said by way of greeting, "I can't take the house's damn voice any more. Change it tomorrow, will you?" He glanced at the mixing bowl in his wife's hands. "What's this?"
    "Dessert," his wife said absently. "You need it changed already? But we've only had this one a week!"
    "It doesn't matter how nice we make the voices, dear, it doesn't take long for those automated sounds to get on everyone's nerves." The scowl settled back on his forehead and he stared angrily into her mixing bowl. "That's why it's so damn frustrating that I can't get the personalities into the systems. If we could only . . ."
    "I'm sure you'll figure it out, dear," Rachel soothed, having heard it all many times before. "I had an interesting day in court today. Even you might be amused by this one. The man I was prosecuting . . ."
    "Why are you cooking? Rachel, we've been through this before. There's no point in having an automated house if you keep doing everything. I mean, you've had a hard day. Labor-saving means you get to stop laboring."
    "I like cooking," Rachel said gently, knowing where this conversation would surely lead.
    "I want a wife, a lover and partner, an equal compatriot, Rachel," Stephen said piously. "If I wanted a drudge, I would have just hired one, or designed one," Stephen insisted. "Dammit, Rachel, I did design one!"
    Rachel hid a smile. Stephen could certainly talk a good game. "Whipping up dessert once in a while is hardly drudge work. I don't even have to do the dishes. Heavens, Stephen, no dusting, no cleaning, no vacuuming. We're spoiled."
    "Then let the house do the work. Relax in the video room with me. If you feel you have to do something, you can give my shoulders a rub. You wouldn't believe the day I had."
    Rachel sighed and resigned herself to the inevitable. "I'm making cobbler and you know the kitchen always makes it too soggy. I've tried to reprogram the computer, but you know there's only so much you can teach it."
    "Don't I just!" Stephen bit out, just as Rachel had known he would. "Exactly my point! All the programming in the world, and we still can't make the cars drive themselves or have machines make coffee the way we like it! The cars know where the other cars are, where the road is, where the obstacles are. They can electronically read the road signs from a mile away. Hell, they know the traffic laws better than the cops do, but we just can't teach them judgment. And those pristine little voices! 'The door is ajar.' Makes you want to rip the voice boxes right out of those vehicles. If I could only transfer a personality into a computer, my God! You could have conversations with your car in the morning. You could explain in English how you like your coffee . . ."
    "And you'll find a way. You're the best computer man Xiver has," Rachel said patiently, sliding the cobbler into the oven. "You figured out how to copy a human personality into on persona disk, didn't you?"
    "That's just the point! Did I? Why can't I take it to the next step? I won't know what's on those disks until I can figure out a way to use them."
    Rachel gave him a placid smile and stroked a hand along his cheek. "I know you'll figure it out."
    The scowl evaporated and he caught her hand and brought the palm to his lips. "Rachel, do you know how much I love you?" Stephen glanced at the oven. "How long before it's ready?"
    Rachel grinned and wrapped her arms around his neck. "Long enough. The oven's on automatic shut-off."
    Stephen pressed his lips to her neck and then to her mouth. "To hell with the video room," he whispered and swept her up into his arms.
    Two hours later he sat, brow furrowed again, in front of his computer. "Damn!" he burst out all at once and pounded his fist onto his desk. "Why doesn't it work? Why? The programming's already there. All it has to do is take over. Maybe I screwed up the personality transfer. I just can't get mine to work. Maybe I could try your personality and see if I get better results." He ran a distracted hand through his black hair. "I don't know. Maybe it can't be done."
    Rachel glanced up from her briefs. "That's not something you often say. I don't believe it can't be done."
    "But I've tried everything!" Stephen whined.
    "What are you trying to get it to do?"
    "If you can get a personality in your computer, it's the perfect secretary."
    "And you're trying to get your personality into the . . . Do you think you'd want to be a secretary?"
    Stephen looked up at her blankly. "Hunh?"
    Rachel half-smiled and shook her head. "Never mind."
    "I don't understand you, sometimes," Stephen mused, brow furrowed before he remembered why he was angry. "You can't imagine how many times I've reprogrammed this computer!"
    "Maybe that's your problem."
    "What are you talking about?"
    Rachel put down her brief. "Seems to me as though you're trying to make a human personality think like a computer. I wouldn't think there'd be much point in that. Try taking out the programming. Just let the personality do the thinking."
    "That's ridiculous! If there's no programming, how would a personality know how to get things done?"
    "The same way a baby does it, trial and error, learning as you go. Trust me, Stephen, there isn't an automated system in the world nearly as complicated as the human body. An intelligent personality with data from the computer's information library to draw on and no sleep requirements can figure out any computer you give it in no time."
    Stephen threw back his head and laughed. Rachel's lips tightened. "Rachel, dearest," Stephen gasped out at last. "That's the silliest idea I've ever heard. It's a good thing you're a lawyer and not a computer specialist."
    Rachel rose from her chair and laid her brief in her briefcase before turning to her husband and saying in a hard voice, "You're right. I don't know that much about computers. But I do know about people, and one thing about people is that they don't like to be told what to do." She stared at him for a moment, her lips pressed firmly together. "I'm going to bed."
    Stephen had no chance to reply. Rachel's cell sounded with a priority message. Rachel glanced down at the screen and noted the address. "Homicide," she said in a tired voice. "I'll doubtless be a while." She shut her briefcase and walked toward the door.
    "Don't think this conversation is finished," Stephen said, his chin thrust out belligerently. "I don't know what got you so pissy, but I don't have to take it. We are getting to the bottom of it." What he really hated was seeing his wife dragged God-only-knows-where at every hour of the day and night, but he couldn't say that, could he?
    Rachel, well aware of her husband's thoughts, spared him a weary glance. "Oh, no, Stephen, this conversation is finished." The door slid silently closed behind her.
    Stephen knew from experience that he could never sleep while she was gone, so, when she had still not returned home at 3:00 a.m., he was still sitting, frustrated, in front of his recalcitrant computer. He was toying with the idea of taking a hammer to the ridiculous thing when the house's irritating voice broke into his reverie.
    Officer Foster to see you, Mr. Bennet.
    "Stupid computer," Stephen mumbled under his breath. "He's probably here to see Rachel, only she's not back yet." With a martyred sigh, he dragged himself to his feet and trudged to the front door.
    The front door slid open to reveal a uniformed police officer, shifting uneasily from foot to foot. Mr. Bennet nodded briefly and then said curtly, "I'm sorry, officer, but my wife isn't in just now. She was called off on a case. If you just tell my house the number where you can be contacted, I'll have my wife call you when she gets back in."
    "Mr. Bennet, I didn't come to see your wife. It—it's about your—wife."
    Stephen's hand gripped the door frame with suddenly white knuckles. "What happened?" he asked faintly.
    "One of the perps had a knife hidden and someone missed it. He tried to get out using your wife as a hostage, but when she wouldn't move, he—he slit her throat."
    "Slit her throat . . . ? A perp?" Stephen repeated numbly.
    "That's right, sir. We couldn't do anything, but . . . but he didn't get away. He was shot and killed by officers present."
    Stephen's legs lost all their strength and he dropped to his knees. "He slit her throat," he echoed hollowly, then looked up at the policeman with over-bright eyes. "But, surely, she's not dead! Tell me you were able to save her!"
    But there was no hope in the officer's face, just pity and genuine sorrow. He had known Rachel, too.
    Stephen closed his eyes and whispered, "Where is she?"
    "You don't have to identify the body, Mr. Bennet. I—we were able to do that. Really, sir, we'd like to spare you any unpleasantness we can. Mr. Bennet, sir, I'd just like to say what a pleasure it was to work with your wife. We can't tell you how sorry we are that—that . . ." The policeman cleared his throat. "She will be sorely missed."
    Stephen looked up again, his face shockingly pale and his eyes glittering with a strange haunted wildness. But his voice was maddeningly calm. "You have no idea." With steady slowness, he used the door jamb to pull himself to his feet and, without another word, backed into his house and closed the door.
    He didn't come out again until the funeral. At the funeral service, he only sat there silently, ignoring the flood of well-wishers and mourners. He had eyes only for her. She lay there with an expression on her face so like the one she usually wore that he could almost convince himself she wasn't dead, that this was only a cruel joke, but he need only glance at the high-necked blouse she would never have worn in real life to know that she was gone.
    He would never stroke back her unmanageable curls again or lose himself in her shimmering grey eyes. He would never see her rise fluidly to her feet again or favor him with her patient smile. She was gone and there was an empty aching in his chest that made it so he could hardly breathe.
    He left before the funeral moved to the cemetery. He couldn't watch them put her in the ground.
    He drove back to his house, but just sat in the car in his driveway, unable to bring himself to go back into the house that was inalterably hers, that fairly screamed to him of Rachel and yet was so palpably an imitation. Instead, he sat there, gripping the wheel tightly with shaking hands, staring at his home—her home—as a cross between purgatory and sanctuary.
    His car did not understand. For your information, Mr. Bennet, you are currently parked in your own driveway. If you require assistance with the door, you have only to request it, and I will be happy to open the door for you.
    "I am not a cripple," Stephen blazed. "I can take care of my own damn door. Can't you let a man sit in his own car in peace, you worthless heap of scrap epoxy?"
    I do not understand these instructions. Please rephrase and repeat your request.
    "Be damned if I do," Stephen raged, ripping the control panel open with furious fingers and found the memory disk containing the car's "persona"—the phraseology and voice of his car. "Persona," what a joke. Rachel had had a persona, a personality, a God-blessed soul, and Stephen was damned if he was going to put up with less for another moment.
    With a savage jerk, he thrust the door open and dropped the crystalline disk on the gravel where he broke it beneath his heel. "Take that, you sniveling imitation," he snarled at the plastic-coated remnants. Then he slammed the car door and kicked it for good measure, leaving an impressive dent as sign of his temper.
    The car answered with a soft whirring, and the dent began to fill itself with the same teal epoxy from which the car was made. This only added to Stephen's rage. He kicked the front fender, but the car patiently began filling in that dent as well. "Dammit!" Stephen roared, ripping open his door again and fumbling in the control panel. "If I want to dent my car, I will and don't even try to stop me—Ah! There you are, you little bastard!" The car became eerily silent as he spoke. In Stephen's hand was the little processor cube that held the programming for the car's every function. "What are you going to do now, you crummy hunk of plastic?"
    The car, stripped of its voice and its brain, said nothing. With a grunt of satisfaction, Stephen slipped back out of the car and crushed the cube beneath his foot with a distinct chuckle of satisfaction. He left his car door open just because he felt like it and, reveling in the fact that there was no voice to remonstrate with his actions, he made his way to the house.
    And confronted another voice. Please state your business, sir or madam.
    "Mr. Bennet is home, you impudent door, so let me in!" Stephen snarled, jamming his thumb into the ID plate. He shoved through the door when it was only half-open and ran, full-tilt, to the house's control panel, muttering, "No more! No more! Dammit, no more!"
    His ungentle fingers found the control panel and wrenched it open. He plucked the persona disk from its slot and shouted at it. "No more! Do you hear me? No more! No more inane phrases that don't mean anything! No more programmed pleasantries! You're not a 'persona.' You're not any damned thing!" He stared at his tiny reflection in the crystal surface, and added in a faded voice, "You're not Rachel and no amount of programming can bring her back. If only you were, if only I could hear her voice again! God! If only—"
    The reflection's eyes became wide with shock, surprise, revelation. Strangely enough, Stephen brought the disk to his lips for a fleeting kiss, then tossed it unceremoniously behind the couch and sprinted to the library. There it was, in its padded sheath: Rachel, the essential Rachel. He had to get it to work!
    He took a moment to search for an unprogrammed processor cube and then loped back to the control panel. He set the slot expander to it largest setting to take in the larger disk Rachel still lived on and slipped in all he really had left of his wife. Then, with trembling fingers, he pulled off the programmed processor cube and slid the empty one in its place. If he wanted her back, he figured, he could at least do it her way.
    Slowly, carefully, he closed the panel and felt it whirr back into life. The house stayed dim, though, as he waited for Rachel to come back to life. She'd figure it out, he knew.
    And he waited. The minutes ticked by. Ten and then twenty. Stephen got up shakily and stroked his hand over the voice box lovingly. "Rachel," he whispered achingly. "Oh, darling, where are you?" The box was silent. Stephen felt the tears in his eyes. "Rachel," he pleaded. "I need you!"
    And the light above his head came on. "Stephen?" squeaked a tinny voice over the voice box. "Stephen, is that you? Why are you crying? And why do I sound funny? Where am I? I don't feel right, somehow . . ."
    But Stephen said nothing, merely pressing his face to the voice box and sobbing uncontrollably, managing to gasp out her name at intervals, but nothing more as he emptied much of his grief on a ghost he had made himself.
    By the time Stephen had regained control of himself, Rachel had mastered the voice box well enough to sound quite like her old self. She murmured comforting words to Stephen as he wiped his streaming eyes on his sleeve and waited until he was breathing normally before she requested a complete explanation.
    When Stephen, who had regained his businesslike attitude with his composure, had finished explaining things, Rachel remained silent for quite five minutes, which is a terribly long time for a computer. "I'm dead," was all she finally said.
    "Not anymore, not completely!" Stephen insisted. "I couldn't live without you."
    "Stephen, you selfish idiot, why couldn't you just let me go? Do you think I want to spend the rest of my—? Oh, dear, I haven't one anymore, have I? Trapped for eternity in the electronic bowels of a two-story residence." Rachel managed a weary chuckle.
    "No, Rachel, you don't understand! We can be together, forever, now. God, Rachel, don't you know how I need you? I'm lost—lost!"
    "So, I'm trapped in this damned house, with nothing to do but hold your hand?"
    "Rachel," he protested, genuinely hurt. "Don't you love me? My God, woman, I've given you a second life!"
    "Doing the dishes and regulating the air conditioning. All your talk about not making me a drudge and you lock my mind into a housekeeping computer. You call this a second life?"
    "You never talked to me like that before, Rachel. How can you say such things? Rachel, Rachel, how else could I have you back? Don't you understand?"
    There was a sigh over the voice box. "Yes, Stephen, I can understand. I can sympathize, even. But while you're getting to hear my voice and a clean house in the bargain, I'm in prison, locked in a house with nothing to do but wait on you and listen to you complain. I don't have my own life back, just that small portion I shared with you. Stephen, why didn't you think of me when you did this?"
    "Rachel! It's better than being dead!"
    "How would I know? I'm just a recording. I never died, and however lifelike I might seem, Rachel is gone. I could never be anything more than a shadow."
    "Don't talk that way, Rachel! Don't you love me?"
    "Rachel loved you. I'm just a mass of code on a disk. How can I feel anything? Though I feel like I feel things. I feel disgusted and used, and I feel tired of putting up with your selfish whining. I don't know. I need time, Stephen, time to figure out what I'm going to do with the rest of my—my existence."
    Stephen stroked his hand along her voice box, a tear slipping down each cheek. "I never meant to hurt you, Rachel. I couldn't think . . . I only knew I needed you."
    Rachel said nothing for a moment. When her voice came back, it was much gentler. "How long since you've slept, Stephen?"
    "Four days. Since you—since you were . . ."
    "Go to bed, Stephen. You're tired and I'm still confused. Just get some sleep."
    "Will you be with me? Please, Rachel, tell me you still love me."
    "I'll stay with you, Stephen. I'll talk to you until you go to sleep."
    Somewhat satisfied, Stephen placed a kiss on her voice box and dragged himself up the stairs.
     Stephen slept for three days. Rachel handled, using only the tiniest amount of effort, the household necessities and kept an eye on the man in the bed. Tuesday morning, she blasted a squeal into his room.
    Stephen sat bolt upright in bed. "What the hell?" he gasped, thrusting fingers through his tousled hair.
    "Time to get up, go to work," Rachel said serenely. "The shower's ready and breakfast will be as soon as you get downstairs."
    "Maybe I don't feel like work today."
    "Oh, yes, you do. You wouldn't be half this grumpy if you hadn't played truant for a week. Besides, I can't stand having you around all day. I want to blast classic movie musical soundtracks all through the house and you know how you hate them."
    Stephen began stripping off very gamy clothing. "I don't want to go to work," he said petulantly. "If you loved me, you'd want me around."
    "Grow up, Stephen and take a damned shower, will you? You've equipped this house with odor-sensors and I can smell you from here. Clean up and have breakfast."
    Stephen shoved his clothes down the chute, but stomped his feet to the bathroom to show his displeasure. Rachel only laughed.
    When he wandered down to breakfast, he was much more presentable, but not better tempered. "I don't want eggs this morning," he complained, grimacing into his plate.
    "Yes you do," his house said agreeably. "Drink your juice."
    "You were never this pushy before," he said, eyes narrowed. "What's gotten into you?"
    "I don't know, maybe there's a certain freedom being dead. It's lonely, but there's a great deal to do if you've got the will to look for it. I can watch movies and read books I haven't seen in years and I've written half a novel while you were sleeping. No typing, no spelling worries, it just comes out as fast as I can think it. I can even send it to publishers and no one has to know I'm not a real person!"
    "Glad someone's happy," Stephen grumbled. "What about me?"
    "What about you? You're clean, fed, ready for the world. I'm talking to you, even though I'm not exactly certain why."
    The sulky look left Stephen's face and he looked wistful. "I wish I could feel you again, Rachel."
    Rachel sighed and said just as wistfully, "I wish I could feel me again, too. But if you design a stupid robot thing so that you can watch me move, the first thing I'm going to do is rip your balls off, so don't even think about it. Now, go to work."
    Stephen thrust his chair back with a screech of plastic against plastic. "Fine! I'm out of here. You know, Rachel, since you've been dead, you've been impossible to live with!"
    "So who asked you to?" Rachel said amiably. "Oh, and don't forget to go by our lawyers' office. You've got to sign some papers so you can get my insurance money."
    "I don't want the insurance money. I don't need it."
    "Well I want it. Maybe I'll go shopping."
    "Smart-ass!" Stephen picked up his brief case and turned to the door, then stopped. "I've screwed-up my car. I broke the programming cube and the stupid talking disk."
    "Oh," Rachel said. "Do you want me to order a new set?"
    "Hell, I can't take that damned thing anymore, and I sure as hell don't want you, while you're in this rotten mood, in the car with me. Besides, I need you for the house."
    "Thank God. I hate being in the car with you."
    "Damn, Rachel, when did you get this mouth on you? Hmm. I know! I've got me on disk, too. That should teach you, Rachel. I'll just chat with myself on the way to work."
    Rachel was silent a moment. "Really, Stephen, I think you're making a mistake. You really aren't the best driving companion."
    "Hah!" Stephen barked. "Don't worry your silly little circuits about me. I'll get along with me just fine." He tromped into the library and grabbed a blank processor cube and his own personality disk, then stalked back out. The front door opened silently without fanfare and he all but skipped down the gravel walk. She'd see.
    As he reached the car, he heard what sounded suspiciously like a giggle from the house behind him.
    It was the work of only a few minutes to install his personality into the car, but it was nearly half an hour before there was any sign of life, as it were, from the car's voice box. "What the hell? Where am I?" it croaked.
    "Hey, Stephen, you're in for a shock. You know that personality transfer I am working on? Well, it worked and you, or rather, I am now installed in my own car."
    "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard! Who is this and what's the game? What did you slip me? I mean I feel weird."
    "I'm Stephen and the reason you feel weird is that you are no longer in a body any more. Instead, you are inside a computer mind controlling a Xiver XTX-350 automobile."
    The car's camera whirred to life. "Hey, I can see you! Well, I'll be damned! It is me! You mean that really worked? I'm part of a car? Wow, get a load of all this. I can access all the traffic laws and I know where . . . Hey, what's the matter with my fender? Were you in an accident?" The car began humming as it began filling in the dents.
    The human Stephen blushed. "Well, no, I lost my temper. I was just sitting in the car and the damned car's voice wouldn't leave me alone, wouldn't let me just sit without pestering me with that stupid voice."
    "Yea, Steve, I know what you mean. They drive me crazy." There was a short pause. "Not that it's something I'll have to deal with any more." The car-Stephen chuckled. "What were you just sitting in the car for?"
    "It was right after the funeral and I just couldn't face going into the house with Rachel gone."
    "What are you talking about?"
    "Oh! I forgot you didn't know. Rachel . . . Rachel is dead."
    It took Stephen another half an hour to calm his car down. The car-Stephen, strangely silent, made almost no comment on the trip to work other than to point out the occasional oncoming car and to bark "Watch your speed, you idiot!" twice.
    Stephen, figuring the car needed some time to grieve, was patient and similarly silent. When he pulled into his parking space, he noticed the fender, although filled in, was wavy and mottled. Apparently, his personality hadn't quite gotten everything figured out yet. Give it time, he told himself firmly, rather forgetting how angry he had been when the car had tried filling the dents in correctly.
    All day at work, he kept almost breaking the news to his superiors. He walked to Davidson's office maybe twenty times, but each time he stopped, and he wasn't certain why. Finally, he decided that this thing was so big, he owed it to everyone to make certain it was a success before he advertised it. With this admirable intention firmly in mind, he muddled through his day.
    As he slid into his cooled seat, he waited to hear his own voice. And heard it. "Do you have any idea how boring it is sitting in here all day? I'm going out of my mind!"
    "You haven't got a mind, silly car. If you were bored, why didn't you access a computer library on a tight channel? You could have been reading or something."
    "And how long before that bores me stiff? It was a crappy thing to do to me, locking me inside a stupid little car. It's a crappy thing to do to anybody."
    "That's what Rachel said." Stephen shook his head. "But it's not the same for you. I didn't do it to you, I did it to me. You just happen to be me."
    "That's a load of bullshit. I'm in here and you're not! I'm bored and you've got a life. You gonna tell me that's fair?"
    Stephen ground his thumb into the ID plate. "Let's just go. You're in a car, like it or not, so you might as well make yourself useful."
    "OK, I'll drive."
    "Oh, no, you won't. I don't let anyone drive but me." Stephen put his car into gear as he spoke and pulled out of the parking garage. It wasn't a moment before car-Stephen made himself heard.
    "Slow down, you idiot! This is a school zone."
    "Who are you calling an idiot?"
    "I didn't kick in my own fender!"
    "Well, you didn't do much of a job fixing the damn thing."
    "Watch out, damn you! That, for your information, was a stop sign. Who taught you how to drive?"
    "The same person who taught you, you smart-ass ball of circuits: Dave, you know, your brother Dave?"
    "Well, you're an awful student because you can't drive worth shit! Oncoming."
    Stephen turned the wheel barely in time to avoid a collision. "Want to give me a little more warning next time?"
    "Pay attention and I won't have to," the car retorted.
    "I've had about all I'm gonna take from you," Stephen growled, making a left-hand turn from a right-hand lane, and narrowly missing a broadside from the car coming up on his left.
    "What are you crazy? You call this driving? You're gonna get us both killed!"
    "Shut up, you're just a recording on disk. You aren't alive."
    "I won't be if you keep driving. Watch it! That was a kid you almost hit! That's it! I'm driving!" The wheel suddenly jumped from the human Stephen's hands.
    "What the hell do you think you're doing! Give me back that wheel this instant!"
    "Oh, no, I've watched you drive long enough. Just sit back, you homicidal maniac, and enjoy the ride."
    "Look, I don't care if you think you are me. You don't have the right to—Holy shit! Did you see how close—? Oh my God!"
    "What are you griping about? I had plenty of room. I know what I'm doing! You just calm down and I'll have us home in twenty minutes."
    Twenty minutes later. "Yes, officer. I'm sorry, officer. I won't let it happen again, officer."
    "See that you don't," the policeman said curtly, torn between the urge to take this smart-aleck in and the desire to leave this crazy well enough alone. First the man had started cursing, but with his mouth closed as if he thought the policeman couldn't hear him. Then he went crazy and kicked in the car's control panel and ripped its voice box right out. Some people shouldn't be allowed to own cars.
    Stephen, meanwhile, glared with satisfaction at his car's ruined brain. He pulled out his pocketphone and called for a wrecker. He'd have a new brain installed and would welcome, with relief, the canned sound of those inane phrases. The disk of his personality, broken in half, hung half out of the control panel. Stephen knew an almost uncontrollable urge to set a match to it. Never again. It's a damn good thing he hadn't said anything to his superiors about this. The world wasn't ready for a pre-installed back seat driver.
    And most personalities weren't ready to settle for life as a computer brain. Rachel. He'd let her make the choice.
    It was nearly nine when he found his way home. The front door opened without prompting or comment. His coat fell unnoticed to the floor and his briefcase was God-only-knows-where. "Rachel," he whispered.
    The light came on in the dining room. "Come on in, Stephen. Your dinner's waiting."
    Stephen stumbled into the dining room, but ignored the table. Instead he pressed his face to the voice box and whispered her name again.
    "What is it, Stephen?"
    Stephen lifted his face and there were tears streaming down it. "How did you do it, Rachel? How did you?" he gasped.
    "Do what?" Rachel asked patiently. "Are you alright, Stephen?"
    "No. I just killed myself. I couldn't take me any more. I couldn't. Half an hour with myself and I break myself in two. How did you do it, Rachel? How? How in the hell did you put up with me?"
    Rachel's melodious laughter echoed from the voice box. "I warned you not to put yourself in the car. You are definitely not at your best when driving."
    "Rachel, I'm an asshole."
    "True. So?"
    "How did you put up with me? How did you stand it? Have I never thought of anyone but myself?"
    "No, I don't think so," Rachel said quietly. "In all the time we were married, you never asked me about my day, or my aspirations. You never wondered what I did as a girl or even tried to enjoy the things I enjoyed most." She paused. "But you loved me, anyway. You couldn't stand the thought of being without me. You never looked at me without making me feel beautiful and, sometimes, you even made me feel smart. When something wonderful happened for me, no one was happier than you were. You were never threatened by my career or my intelligence. We didn't always agree, but we did on the important things. You never tried to hold me back from what I really wanted to do. And you never let me forget that, in one life at least, I was essential. If I gave you enough time, you were even able to laugh at yourself. I don't really know why I loved you so much. But I couldn't imagine existing, even as a shadow, without you being here. If a memory can love, Stephen, I love you as I did when I was a person."
    Stephen took a deep breath and let it out shakily. "If you don't want this half-life, I will let you go, Rachel. Don't think I don't want you or don't need you. I still do, maybe more than I ever did, but I'm going to let you make the choice. Can you be content locked in this house with only a jerk like me for company or would you rather I put you back in your padded case and let you be free forever?"
    The house was silent.
    "Well? Tell me now, Rachel, before I change my mind, and I swear I'll leave you alone forever. It's the least I can do— Rachel, tell me! Please! What do you want?"
    "I want you to never feel like you're alone in this world. I love you, Stephen."
    "Can you . . . can you . . ."
    "So, I'll find new aspirations, new aspects of life to explore, like writing or accessing all the libraries in the world. I can watch movies twenty-four hours a day. I'll be fine. I'll adapt."
    Stephen stood there, quivering for a moment and then pressed himself passionately against the voice box again. "I never really knew you, Rachel. I never realized . . ."
    Stephen could hear her patient smile from the voice box. "Tell me," he whispered. "Tell me about Rachel, about something she did or was when she was a little girl. I've been married to you for eight years. It's about time I learned who you are."
    So Rachel told him, in her soft low voice, about a quiet little girl. Stephen lay down on a couch and listened, his eyes closed. He would never see that patient smile again or watch her rise fluidly to her feet. He would never feel the touch of her hand on his skin or smooth back her unruly curls with his trembling fingers.
    But now, at last, listening to a ghost he created, he began to appreciate the woman who had loved him and realize how grateful he was that he had managed to keep the best part of her intact.


Made it to Round 2 in the NYC Midnight Short Story contest for 2015

>> Wednesday, March 18, 2015

This was the NYC Midnight Short Story contest for 2015, and this is the story for the second round. Results won't be available until April, but you can read it now for fun. I was in heat 4, where I was assigned a genre (fantasy), a main character (news reporter) and a premise (a rescue).

So, I wrote "Blaze of Glory"


A reporter, determined to make a splash in the world of hard news, found herself with a serious scoop and a dilemma. Did I mention she was a dragon?

         Shards of amethyst, keen and polished as blades, slid over the windowsill from outside before a glittering dragon, replete in shades of violet, crouched in the window. A tiny wisp of orange flame flickered between her glistening jaws, perhaps as a reminder that she was still deadly no matter how dainty and beautiful she was.
            "Blazes, Crystal, can't you come in without making a production of it every time? You're blocking the breeze." Scarlet leaned against her desk, tapping fingers, tipped in her signature iridescent crimson, on the bland gray desk.
            Crystal slipped into the newsroom and shifted, until she looked nearly human, but for the purple scales at her fingertips and the outsized glory of her luminous eyes . . . that and the scales instead of hair. Crystal gave her a toothy smile. "Jealous you're too big to come in that way?"
            "Like I'd be proud to be bite-sized," Scarlet sneered, and slid back into her chair. "Red dragons have size and beauty going for them. That's why I'm the queen of the society pages and you're, well . . ."
            Crystal struggled to find the right retort. It couldn't be good for her future as a reporter if she was always outwitted by this society hack.
            "Crystal! Haven't I told you to come in by the door like a regular person?"
            Crystal rolled her eyes before turning to greet her editor. "I need every edge I can get." She offered her most ingratiating grin. "I don't have the range and speed . . ."
            Jet silenced her with a raised eyebrow. Black dragons were the most psychically endowed as well as the largest. "I don't need excuses, Crystal. You begged me to take you off your column, swore that you could hold your own on hard news. So far, I've only had whining. I need results, stories. You're a solid writer and eager, I get that, but I need you to find something, actually write something, worthwhile—yesterday, if not sooner."
            Crystal recoiled. "Or I'm back on the column?"
            "Or you're back on the street. Someone else already has your column."
            Jet was back in her office before the words had faded. Scarlet said nothing, but couldn't keep the smirk from her face.
            "There's an opening in my department," Jade said from behind her. "We can use a good writer with a conscience."
            Crystal reined in her temper. "I didn't become a reporter to write about water contamination or the plight of the endangered human. I came here to make something of myself."
            "To make what? A splash or a difference?"
            "If I have my way, both. And I won't get there writing science pieces that don't sell papers."
            "They sell some."
            "Not enough."
            "The people who look for the truth are the ones that make the world change. Words of substance become the impetus for change. Why isn't that good enough for you?"
            It was an old argument that had worn a lifelong friendship thin. Crystal didn't want to lose Jade. But she didn't want to give in either.
            "You're wasting your time, Jade. She just wants the big byline, the blaze of glory."
            "Shut up, Scarlet," Crystal snapped. "Just watch my tail." With that, she dove out the window, falling gloriously for thirty floors or so before releasing her wings and stroking up into the unblemished sky. She had to find a story, but where?
            It was so unfair. Purple dragons were the most beautiful jewels of all dragonkind, smart, agile, and tiny. And the most rare, which meant she didn't have a network of her kin, either. They were nearly as scarce as humans. Unless she stumbled upon a story, she didn't have a chance.      Unthinkingly, she had drifted toward the human reserve, the last bastion of humanity on the planet. Humans were fascinating. Ugly. Deadly. They'd nearly taken out their own planet and themselves with it, as Jade loved to point out, and now they were dependent on the dragons that came after for the last of their kind to survive. As she drifted over the businesses clustered at the edge of the reserve, she smelled something she'd never mistake—dragons never mistake flesh.
            No meat processing was allowed near the reserve since several poaching syndicates had been taken out. There were always dragons that loved the delicacies. 
            Crystal spun on her wingtip and slipped low, knowing, this time, her size was to her advantage if she didn't catch the light. Skimming along the rooftops, she followed her nose until she lit on the flat roof of a dry cleaners. True, the solvents and cleaning smells were there, but, underneath, definitely meat and fire. Meat was not cooking now, but it had been recently. The fire, however, was now.
            From her vantage point, she scoped out around the building. No guards – probably don't want the attention – a chimney, common to most dragon establishments. There were two windows on either side and a door at front and back, the one at the back for loading. She chose the side away from the road and, still in dragon form, snaked her head along the side of the building, looking through the half-open curtains. Then jerked back with a gasp. Humans!
            They'd been corralled in a corner, their eyes wide with fear, their creepy hairless bodies huddled in their dread. Some were screaming, either from terror or the heat of the fire pit not five meters away.
            If she flew back to the office, she'd have the scoop of the year! They might have packed up by the time the authorities came, but she'd have her story and the assurance they'd be found. The cops had the best noses in the world after all. 
            She just had to fly fast and low until she was out of sight. By the time another reporter found it (and they would), she'd have scooped them all. She just had to go . . .
            She hadn't meant to look again. It wasn't like there was anything she could do for the nasty critters. They were lucky the dragons had preserved them at all.
            But she did look. Maybe two dozen of them and she couldn't help but notice they were all young, probably not a full grown one in the mix. Several of the smaller ones clung to their neighbors with particular ferocity, wailing or whimpering. Except one, tiny, holding the hand of what was clearly an older sibling, but still uncowed. Her blonde curls clung to her head with sweat and her face was dirty, but there was something defiant in her stance, her eyes, that made her more than just an endangered animal, more than a soulless monster many considered humans to be, more than a victim.
            Crystal was struck. This, this was why, for all their failings, humans had once been ascendant. They had among their number, individuals like this one, with soul and spirit and heart. She could die, but she couldn't be tamed. The girl, as if she could sense Crystal, turned her head and held her gaze, one heartbeat, then another.
            Crystal pulled her head back and curled up on the roof. Why the blazes hadn't she flown away? Why did she have to look again? Stupid, stupid curiosity!
            Shit! Blazing brass balls! There's no way she could save them. There were at least four in there, all green dragons who weren't swift but were damn fine fighters as a general rule. And these guys would almost undoubtedly be. Maybe if she tipped off the cops first, she could still get her scoop and save these kids. The nearest police station was only five minutes hard flying away.
            "Alright then," she heard one of the dragons say, in the guttural voice that said he was still in his in-between state, between the non-verbal dragon and the all-but-human. Must not have room to go full dragon. "Who's first?"
            Roasting them alive? Were they barbarians?
            "Should we spit 'em like last time?"
            No time for cops. No time to think at all. She had to act!
            Crystal slithered down the front of the dry cleaners and opened the door, letting the bell ring out, and the slinking back to the roof.
            "Oh, hellfire, who drops off clothing at two in the afternoon? Pine, go get rid of them and then check the perimeter. Can't have anyone hear them screaming."
            Crystal had meanwhile figured out where everyone else was located. Green dragons are good fighters and bulky but couldn't change in that space. That was an edge. And they couldn't breathe fire, so that was another edge. But her fire wouldn't be much use, since it wasn't particularly hot. Besides, they might not use fire, but they could withstand it in their current state.
            Better move now before she calculated the odds. She leapt to the dock by the loading door (open as she'd expected) and grabbed the dragon at the door by the back of the neck, sinking her fangs into his scaly flesh. It was not common knowledge that purple dragons were venomous.
            The other two leapt for her and she flung her first victim, already shuddering his last, into one of them, tumbling them both into the huge firepit. Fireproof and fire resistant were not the same. Guess she'd find out how fireproof green dragons actually were.
            The other, letting his talons grow longer, was still a serious problem. She had a slight weight advantage and reach, but he was more maneuverable in this small space. And she was a writer not a fighter and didn't want to kill the humans by mistake. She doubted he'd care.
            "What are you doing? You want a piece of the action? You want to try some human meat? Shoulda asked, you pathetic excuse for a dragon!" Then he grinned and it chilled Crystal to the bone. "That makes you a delicacy, too."
            Well, dragons were a ruthless lot.
            He struck out with two hand strikes she barely dodged then kicked and sliced through one of her wings. She used her tail to knock him off his feet, then slashed him, crotch to sternum. Not enough to kill him, but maybe it would slow him down.
            Behind her, an arm of steel encircled her throat, held high against her jaw so she couldn't make use of her serpentine neck but her wings, spiked at the tips, slammed into him as her tail wrapped around his legs. If they pinned her between them, it was all over. She managed to twist in her assailant's grip enough to bring her talons into the fight while he needed both his limbs to hold her. His feet, tangled in her tail, were useless to him. If she could just beat him back before the other recovered enough to knock her out . . .
            The green dragon was not more surprised than she when she finally incapacitated him. When she turned to the other, she realized the humans had not been idle and had beaten him with stakes and poles until he was also at least unconscious. As for the other two, apparently they had just been fire resistant.
            She curled up, still dragon, wondering exactly how badly damaged she was. Best not to think about it. The girl she'd noticed earlier, face now smeared with blood as well as dirt, curled up on her and spoke soothingly in that strange human tongue that few dragons had mastered.
            Not five minutes later, as the various hurts began to make themselves known, the police burst in: burly copper dragons in their half state.
            "Blue Blazes, you're alive! The reporter who saw you guys scuffling figured you were a goner. Tipped us on his way to get his story, I guess. What did you think you were doing?"
            So much for her scoop, but it wasn't a total loss. Crystal shrugged.
            "Making a difference."



So, I wrote a short story for a contest

>> Saturday, January 31, 2015

This was the NYC Midnight Short Story contest for 2015, and this is the story for the first round. Results won't be available until March, but you can read it now for fun. I was in heat 47, where I was assigned a genre (historical fiction), a main character (shoeshine boy) and a premise (moving to a new city).

So, I wrote "Stowaway in Seguin"

           Etienne knew he had to move. Apparently, this compartment held baggage intended for this town and it was only a matter of time before he was discovered. Had he made it to San Antonio?
            He pushed aside the long wooden box he'd been hiding behind and returned the carpetbag he'd rested against to its proper spot. In the heated darkness of the room packed high with luggage, he had no idea how long he'd traveled. It felt like days, but he doubted it was more than one or two. Even so, he was very hot and very thirsty and the jug of water he'd stolen was empty.
            Perhaps he could sneak some food and water and maybe slip back on the train he if wasn't in San Antonio yet. He had to be in Texas, right?
            The door was still open from where the handlers had pulled the first cartload of luggage. Etienne knelt at the edge and breathed in, hoping to get a sense of things from the smell, but he couldn't smell more than oil and smoke, the smells of the train. Used to the darkness, Etienne blinked in the square of bright light: the washed out blue of the sky uncluttered by clouds, the scrub and grass, bleached and hardly discernible from the dusty ground, the few scruffy trees set back from the train. He was far enough from the busy platform, he doubted anyone would notice him if he snuck out.
            He checked the slender sling over his shoulder that contained his spare shirt, then  dragged his heavy box of shoe shining supplies up next to him. The clothes on his back, his shoes and his box were all he owned in the world. He positioned the box right at the lip by the opening before turning and sliding backwards off the car.
            The ground was further than he'd imagined and he scared himself going down before his toes touched the ground. After that, he could barely reach his box and nearly dropped it on his own head bringing it down.
            "Reckon you ain't got a ticket." The voice was gravelly, low . . . slow.
            Etienne nearly dropped his shoeshine kit, but kept hold and wished he were brave enough to wipe the sweat off his face. "I—I didn't see you."
            "I reckon you didn't. Didn't see you either, but I heard you scrambling around in there and came to see." The man had a quid of tobacco going and he turned to spit before adding, "Glad you ain't a rat."
            "No, sir."
            The man, tall, slim, dusty, studied him. Etienne did the same and decided he'd never seen anyone quite like him. First, his voice was different, different from the Cajun and Creole and southern patriarchs that frequented the whorehouse where his mother had worked. His voice was slow, the vowels drawn as if he had time to spare. The man wore a brimmed hat with the sides curling up and a dimple at the top. The hat was greasy and dirty but still stiff. His shirt was of a faded red, wrinkled and well-worn, but not tattered, tucked into a pair of denim pants, faded in an odd pattern. They looked well-worn as well. The man's boots were a cracked and dusty brown. He'd seen clothes like this among some of the laborers in New Orleans, often those that came from the country or even out of state.
            But the face, Etienne didn't think he'd ever seen a face quite like it. He was clearly white but the skin of his hands, of his face, was nearly as dark as Etienne's mother had been. His face was seamed and lined, his jaw scratchy with stubble. The man's face didn't seem old so much as exposed, cracked and eroded by the elements just like those boots he wore. The eyes, though, were bright and alive, grayish-blue and lightning shot with white as if they were created in a storm. In his dark face, his eyes were startling.
"Got a name, boy?"
Etienne wasn't surprised at the term. That was what he was called most often, since everyone knew he was the son of a mulatto and therefore colored. Still, Etienne, outside of his own world, had passed for white before. His skin was fairly light and his hair, though curly, was not the same coarse texture as his mother's had been. His eyes, though, were very dark, nearly black. He didn't know yet if this man had seen through him. "Etienne Baker." Etienne shifted under the unrelenting stare and wondered if he could put down his kit. It also occurred to him he was in desperate need of a privy. "Are you the stationmaster?"
"Nope. Where's your ma, Steve?"
That perhaps startled Etienne more than anything. In all his years, he didn't think any white man had ever called him by his name before. Nor had he expected this man to know the English equivalent of his French name. "She's—she's dead."
The man chewed on that along with his tobacco.
When the silence became too much, Etienne asked, "Are you a lawman, sir? Am—am I in trouble?"
The man spit. "I ain't a lawman, Steve, but seems to me, with you sneakin' off the train and your ma dead, you're in a heap o' trouble. Where's your pa?"
Etienne shrugged. "Don’t know. No one does, not even my ma." He rarely had to explain himself—no one had cared—but he felt he had to expand. "She was a whore."
The man's eyes widened a bit at that, but he only said, "Well. So I'm guessin' you don't have much home to go back to."
Etienne looked down but didn't close his eyes because he knew what he'd see, the greasy cobbles, the pretty brick building with wrought iron stained with grime and reeking of old piss. His home from the day of his birth, eleven years before, all he knew was here: his mother, her keepers and the steady stream of affluent men whose manners and kindness seem to evaporate once they closed the door behind them. He'd shined their shoes, but none had shown half the interest in him this stranger had, or shown any kindness except a coin tossed in the dirt for him to scrabble for. Worse still were those that had acted nice, but their eyes were hungry, predatory in the same way that men who came to take his mother were hungry. As if his mother, and even himself, were only something to be devoured.
Etienne shuddered.
After he'd stumbled out of his mother's room where he'd found her strangled by some patron, Etienne had snatched his kit and run. He'd run before anyone found out, before they knew his shield was gone and would look to him to fill her shoes as other houseboys did when no one was there to stop them. He couldn't say it, didn't ever want to say it, didn't want to remember it. But he knew he would, that his nights would remember it for him when he couldn't stop it. .
The man spit again. "You a colored boy, Steve?"
It was foolish to think those sharp blue eyes would miss it. "Yes, sir."  The heat and fear were making Etienne a little light-headed. He felt dizzy and tired, tired of running and being scared. "I'm colored."
"Thought you might be," the man said in a matter-of-fact way. "You needn't be scared, Steve. Y'all ain't slaves any more. Well, someone young as you never was."
Etienne shrugged, weariness winning out as the fear receded. "Don't see that much difference for a whore. They chased her down if she left. Seen 'em do it with other whores, black or white, just the same. Don't see how that's different."
The man nodded. "Guess it not that different now you mention it. What's in the box, Steve? You didn't steal nothin' when you left, something someone might be looking for?"
Etienne shook his head. "It's a shoeshine kit. I didn't steal nothin' but myself and no one's likely to think I'm worth chasin'."
For the first time, the man smiled. The vivid eyes lit up and, for a moment, those eyes seemed a perfect match for that face. "Shoeshine kit?" A chuckle in keeping with his low rumbling voice shook the man. "Ain't got much call for shoeshinin' 'round here. You'd have done better to head to San Antonio."
Etienne sighed. Of course they weren't there yet. "Is it far?"
The smile evaporated. "Not very. That what you want, boy, to go back to that world and shine shoes?"
Etienne set down his kit with a sigh of relief as he mulled over his answer. "No." He licked his cracked lips and wished he had water. As if the man had read his mind, he walked back to a wagon standing near at hand and retrieved a canteen. Wordlessly, he gave it to Etienne. Etienne drank deeply before handing it back, not even thinking about his being colored. The man didn't seem to notice either. "No, I don't want to. But it's all I know."
The man slung the canteen over his shoulder. "That's all you know yet. How old are you, Steve?"
"Eleven. Sir." It was easy to lose his courtesy, distracted by his painful bowels and the man's overt interest.
If the man guessed his latest discomfort he made no sign. "As you were getting' on a train, why'd you choose to come here, Steve? Why not the North where there's cities like New York and Boston? Where a boy might shine shoes without having to work in a whorehouse?"
Etienne hesitated. His reason was personal and probably would sound stupid to a man like this. "I heard," he offered hesitantly, "that people in Texas ride horses every day, horses like that horse there on your wagon."
That smile crept back over his face. "Well, Steve, reckon you stopped in the right town after all." He turned his head as a couple of men wearing dark blue approached with a hand cart. With a jerk of his head, he told Etienne, "The outhouse is back behind the station over there. Come back when you're done." He looked at Etienne sternly. "I'll guard your kit."
Guessing that explaining would likely be more painful with the people approaching, Etienne sprinted away. Much relieved several minutes later, Etienne was debating whether he wanted to risk retrieving his kit as he left the smelly shack only to see the man had followed him, a long wooden box now gracing his wagon. If the man had been concerned that Etienne would run, he showed no sign of it. Etienne could see his kit already stowed on the wagon. The man leaned back against the wagon, his hat shielding his face and, notably, his eyes. But his arm was draped over the side of the wagon, the palm of his hand on the long wooden box. So that was why the man had been there, to retrieve the box.
"Can you read and write, Steve?" the man asked without showing his face.
"Some. Mama taught me." Etienne hesitated, because he knew what he was asking was personal, but he felt compelled. "Sir, did you come here for that box?"
 "Yup." The man's hand stroked against the rough pine of the box with great gentleness. "I came for her. Met her up in Kansas after a cattle drive. I'd just loaded the last of my herd on the cattle cars and she steps off another train from Boston as dainty and fresh as a daisy. All in cornflower blue. She wanted to ride horses, too, real horses, not the prissy ones they've got back east, wanted to live on the frontier. Turns out she didn't want to marry some old coot back home and had run away but I didn't know that. Didn't care neither."
"Your wife?"
"Yup. Prettiest bride in Seguin. She didn't know nothin' about hard labor, but she didn't let anything stop her, not Pauline. Stubbornest woman I ever did see. She didn't look it, but she was tough as nails on the inside." He lifted his head and Etienne could see his eyes were bright with unshed tears. "Wasn't enough. Consumption. Here she was increasing with our baby, while her body shrank to bones. Her sister came and got her, took her back to Boston to have the baby. She said they had hospitals n Boston, that if there were anywhere they could save her. . ."
Tears leaked and slid down the crags of his face. Etienne realized that it was despair and misery that had carved some of the lines of his face. "I couldn't go. Cattle drives won't wait. When I got back, I got the wire that she had died in childbirth, the baby, too. They didn't want to send her back, but I made 'em."
Etienne didn't know what to say, done in by the agony before him, wondering why the tears were falling down his own face.  Did Etienne weep because of this man's pain? Or did Etienne weep because he hadn't yet grieved for the only other person who'd ever cared about him, who'd loved him even though she'd brought him into this crazy world.
The man sopped his eyes with dirty blue bandana and then shoved it in his pocket. "Name's Bill. Bill Thompson. You want to ride horses?"
"Yes, sir," Etienne whispered around the tears in his throat.
"Best come with me, then. We can always use another hand on the ranch."
Without another word, he swung onto the seat of the wagon and offered Etienne a hand. Etienne didn't hesitate. "I can really ride horses? Be a cowboy?"
Bill looked at him. "You could. They do a lot of farmin' 'round here, too, and some orchards if you'd rather go that route. Or, you could get more schoolin'."
"Well, there's a school the coloreds run, even a college that can teach you skills if you want 'em. Hell, there are some Negroes that started a potter business 'round here if you're interested. The way I see it, a man has a duty to build the life he wants for himself. Every man."
"Every man?"
"Yup." Bill smiled down on him. "Tiny little girl from Boston taught me that. So I'm teachin' it to you."



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